Reel Time

Girls, Uncorrupted and Compromised as Hell

Alice Wu’s delightful Saving Face and the moving The Girl in the Café. Plus, entertaining Judy Miller.

A quiet heroine

Alice Wu’s felicitous Saving Face (Sony Pictures Classics) is like a sex farce played at quarter speed, with so much gentle irony that the comic incongruities—not to mention the angry ones—hit you a beat or two late, when you’re not prepared to be goosed. Farces work best in repressive and inflexible cultures, so that the characters are forced to sneak around behind the backs of enforcers and censors, shamefacedly but helplessly led by their instincts. The taboo-heavy culture here is the large, traditional Chinatown of Flushing, Queens, in which patriarchs remain firmly oversensitive to deviation and disgrace, and there’s always a band of gossiping “biddies” to enforce the status quo.

Everyone in this film is very serious, including the protagonist, Wil (Michele Krusiec), a talented surgical resident who knows enough not to broadcast her lesbianism on home turf and who allows her widowed mother and grandparents to match her up with an endless stream of Chinese professional suitors. A tall, broad-shouldered lad known as Little Yu (Brian Yang) even meets her at her subway station every week to give her herbs to increase her “marriage chi.” Stonefaced, Wil accepts the herbs: It’s easier than spurning them. She doesn’t take any kind of stand—which is the reason, perhaps, that she hasn’t had any intense relationships.

Until now. Saving Face gets going with the news that Wil’s 48-year-old mother (Joan Chen) has been scandalously knocked-up by a Father To Be Named Later, and with Wil’s introduction to Vivian (Lynn Chen), a dancer from the same Flushing neighborhood. Vivian is a lip-smacking beauty: a big, curvy, lollipop of a girl too ripely sexual for this starchy milieu. She’s laughably seductive. She shows up at Wil’s hospital, saunters down a staircase in back of a soda machine, and advises her disconcerted quarry on a choice of beverage: “Sometimes your body knows what you really want.” The uninhibited Vivian throws Wil’s delicate balance out of whack. So does the arrival of her banished, pregnant mom, who moves into her less-than-luxuriously-situated apartment and proceeds both to judge her and evince the most irritating kind of helplessness.

Nearly everything that follows is loopy but deadpan. Ma has led a sheltered Flushing life and speaks practically no English. She takes a trip to Wil’s local video store, where she asks for “China” films and gets directed to a shelf containing multiple copies of The Last Emperor and The Joy Luck Club (the Joan Chen Collection), along with Chinese porn. She takes the porn. Not having had much exposure to other cultures, she is disturbed by Wil’s “dark, loud” African-American neighbor (Ato Essandoh), but seems increasingly open to experience. Now it’s Wil’s turn to fix her mother up with assorted Chinese men, alternately elderly or avuncular, and not the sort to light this luscious woman’s fire. (The Chinese males here have a kind of smugness that doesn’t make you pity them that much; they are fond of applying such sayings to women as, “Forget meat on the grill and it will dry out.”) Who is the father of that child, anyway? While Wil applies herself to the needs of her mother, Vivian begins to stamp her pretty foot about going out in public together.

What makes Alice Wu’s debut so pleasurable is its easy rhythms, its sly juxtapositions, and its relaxed but funny performances. A generous straight man, Krusiec gives the film emotional heft while Joan Chen makes you smile. Chen doesn’t play this material for comedy, which makes her hypersensitivity to her new, American environment so amusing, and her clandestine affair—for which there is no evidence apart from her belly—so subversive. Saving Face is too unpretentious to damage with overpraise or over-analysis. There is a modesty to the enterprise that matches up well with its unflamboyant heroine, so that you understand on a gut level why it’s not Wil’s thing to make big scenes. She’s a surgeon—finely, deftly tuned. So is the movie.

An angry heroine

Having no wish to tread on the tootsies of my excellent colleague, Dana Stevens, I have held my peace about the very fine HBO movie The Girl in the Café. But as its title character, Gina (Kelly McDonald), can’t manage to restrain her public-spirited declarations, let me indecorously tell you why I feel that it’s a wonderful piece of writing, acting, directing, and politics.

First, a lament: As a critic, I’m constantly in the unhappy position of dumping on writers and directors whose politics I respect but whose work makes me roll my eyes. The recent Crash and Kingdom of Heaven, for example, express views (racism and religious intolerance are very bad things) with which I couldn’t agree more fervently. But to varying degrees both films lack verisimilitude and, more important, drama. It’s the job of a screenwriter or director to find the most eloquent and surprising spokespeople for opposing points of view, even abhorrent ones—if for no other reason than to spell out why anyone would be seduced by the dark side. Otherwise, what you have is agitprop.

But there is a place for honest agitprop! And it is hard to imagine a film more open and guileless in its intentions than The Girl in the Café. It’s a piece of naiveté—but radiant naiveté, with grace and humor.

By now, you must know the premise: In a café, a socially backward diplomatic aide (Bill Nighy) sits opposite (or, more precisely, diagonally from) a seemingly introverted young woman, courts her in the most halting manner imaginable (he is inexperienced; she is damaged), and finally invites her to Iceland (the land of her heroine, Björk) for the G-8 economic summit. There, she learns (or did she know?) about the Millennium Project, intended to mount a full-scale war on extreme African poverty, which kills one child every three seconds. The British delegation is more committed than any other to keeping the funds in place, but these hardened diplomats are prepared to accept the necessity for compromise. The sorrowful, angry Gina violates decorum by accosting sundry ministers (including the top man) and speaking up for the African children. Poor smitten Lawrence is aghast—and yet, being pure in heart, cannot shrug off or renounce her.

The screenwriter, Richard Curtis, does not allow the other side—the U.S. delegation—to argue convincingly for a “sensible” cost-balance analysis. Judging from Love, Actually, in which the American president (Billy Bob Thornton) is a Clintonesque horndog, he has no love for the American government, and I suspect he finds the current administration too corrupt to have a conscience, much less yield to one.

But Curtis is the reigning king of the cinema du squirm, and the drama here is between Gina (MacDonald is Scottish) and the formal English diplomats and bureaucrats who are too repressed to present the issue in a way that transcends the politics of the possible. The more palpable drama is within Lawrence, who’s embarrassed to be seen with his girlfriend in the first place and is mortified—his shoulders collapse and his body shrinks before our eyes—when she opens her lovely mouth to challenge his superiors. The tension in every scene is: What will she say and how will he survive it? And will he ultimately endorse her views?

There are few actors on earth that I would rather watch than Nighy and MacDonald, so nearly every scene had me laughing, cringing, and even freezing the frame out of sheer embarrassment. MacDonald resists the temptation to play Gina as a firebrand, which would be more amusing but would also dispel her mystery. Besides, Nighy takes care of the amusement. No actor since Richardson and Gielgud has so velvety a timbre, or can tease so many threads of emotion (and so many laughs) out of a stammer. Here, he uses that lanky frame to suggest a Frankenstein-monsteresque discombobulation, and the director, David Yates, is a wizard at juxtaposing his all-too-human body against the chill, modernist Icelandic hotel decor.

The Girl in the Café ends with a reminder that the G-8 summit meets in a few days in Scotland and that the lives of millions of African children will once again hang in the balance. I have nothing to add to that. … 11:14 a.m. P.T.

The Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the case of reporters—among them the New York Times’ Judith Miller—who have refused to disclose the source of an illegal, potentially lethal leak that (in an attempt to discredit the discrediter of the bogus Niger yellowcake uranium story) “outed” Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Jack Shafer has too many pieces on Miller’s reporting—which helped to convince large segments of the reading public that Iraq was indeed developing weapons of mass destruction—to link to, but you should start with this  and this.

Today, William Safire  emerges from retirement to call on the mysteriously unsubpoenaed Robert Novak to come clean and adds, “Judy won’t crack.”

Good for Judy!

A few months ago, at a dinner for journalists, Al Franken was met with stony silence when he said, “Hey, Judy, maybe you can find some WMD in your cell.” Naughty, naughty Franken. I’d like to take a more constructive approach to Miller’s potential confinement.

What movies should she watch in the recreation room that will both entertain and educate her? Let’s take All the President’s Men off the table—if for no other reason than that Mark Felt acted, ultimately, in the country’s best interest. I’m open to political or journalism melodramas, of course. But don’t discount comedies, Westerns, war movies, and even love stories. (Any Judy-Ahmad Chalabi parallels come to mind?) Remember, we don’t just want escapism; we want Judy to come out a better person.

I’ll post the best suggestions after the July 4th holiday. …7:45 a.m. P.T.